Habermas: The Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy by Hugh Baxter

I was invited by Kevin Gray, philosophy professor at the American University of Sharjah, to participate in an Author-Meets-Critics panel for this book at the NASSP Conference in Boston July 26-28, 2012 at Northeastern University. Here is the program.

This book at once presents an overview of Habermas’ political theory that requires little familiarity with his books and a deep analysis/critique that is interesting even if you have read Between Facts and Norms several times.

The main thrust of Baxter’s argument is that Habermas’ theory of law has changed significantly since he wrote Theory of Communicative Action. In Between Facts and Norms, Habermas has a much more optimistic view of law as more than a strategic colonizer of the lifeworld. Instead, law is normatively grounded and has the potential of reigning in political power and money. Baxter argues, however, that the old framework of system and lifeworld is no longer tenable in this new discourse theory of law and democracy, a claim with which I mainly agree.

My comments then focused on the one area that I found under-theorized in this book: Habermas’s theory of the public sphere. I turned my attention here because I think that this is the most interesting element of Habermas’s theory. Habermas argues that an engaged public sphere is a necessary element in democratic society because the public sphere is the location in which public opinion forms. Now that seems pretty obvious, but he also articulates how social movements arise from individuals’ experiences of the failures of the political structure that come together through our families, friends, and other social networks. These civil society associations bring these experiences together and magnify them until they reach the public sphere through civil disobedience, media coverage, mass movements, and even court cases. I used the example of the Dream Act movement that has spurred action by the Obama Administration–his recent announcement of the new executive action to defer the deportation of young undocumented immigrants was largely a response to civil disobedience by young Dreamers. Check out this coverage.

In any case, it was an excellent read.

About Amelia M. Wirts, Esq.

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers or They/Their/Theirs I am an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Washington, Seattle, and I work on philosophy of law, social/political philosophy, and feminism. My current research project argues that the criminal justice system in the United States oppresses people through policing, courts and punishments, and collateral consequences of convictions and arrests. Because this system is an oppressive one, I argue that those engaged in anti-rape and anti-domestic violence activism should not avail themselves of the criminal justice system to achieve their goals. Looking for other ways of fighting rape and domestic violence will actually serve victims and their communities better. In addition to obtaining my Ph.D. from Boston College in 2020, I also graduated from Boston College Law School in 2017 as a part of a dual degree program in philosophy and law at Boston College. I was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in January 2018.
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